The Palm Beach International Film Festival turns 18 this year, the age of majority, and the staff wants you to know that the eight-day event has matured and gotten its priorities straight.
“I would say that we have become more about the films, which is what it’s supposed to be about,” says longtime festival director Randi Emerman. “We’re focusing on movies, the people that make these movies, the message of these films and the cultures from around the world.”
That has not always been the case, with many a past festival more about the sizzle than the steak, about the celebrities and the gala where they picked up awards than the films themselves.
In part because of the anemic economy of recent years, the gala has disappeared from the festival lineup. There still will be celebs, but only if they have a film here to promote. And Emerman wants to talk about the 141 movies she is bringing to area cinema fans — including 31 feature films and 30 documentaries, from the United States and around the globe.
She downplays the festival’s recent money woes, preferring to talk art over commerce. “It’s been struggling financially, but it keeps going and the films get better and the attendance in the theaters gets better,” Emerman insists. “I’m very proud of this (year’s) program.”
Although the Palm Beach County government has pulled out its financial support for the festival, Emerman says that the event still brings substantial amounts of money into the local economy. “Since 2001, we’ve used 6,300 hotel rooms. That’s the filmmakers bringing themselves in. That’s not us bringing people in and putting them up in hotel rooms,” she says. “And that’s significant to the economy because they’re eating, dining. And everyone who comes to the movies, from the minute they buy their tickets online, the economic engine starts.”
The festival is well spread around the county, with such perennial screening locations as Muvico Parisian 20 at CityPlace, West Palm Beach; Cobb Downtown at the Gardens, Palm Beach Gardens; and the Lake Worth Playhouse’s Stonzek Theatre; as well as Delray Beach’s new spiffy Frank Theatres CineBowl & Grille.
Travel abroad to find films has dwindled, yet the festival still managed to attract dozens of international films, including entries from Russia, Spain, Israel, Thailand, Ethiopia, Nepal, Croatia and Singapore, to name a few. “We write letters to different cultural attachés and embassies and film offices,” says Emerman. “We reach out to some festival websites.”
Participating for the first time with a feature film called “Pablo” is Cuba. “They just submitted it,” she says. “How they found out we won’t know until we get them here. They wanted the film here and they want to come with it.”
She is particularly proud of an Eastern European Sidebar of five films that Emerman personally attracted to Palm Beach County.
“Last summer, I was reading in one of the trades that the Russian Cinema Fund was doing an event in Moscow called The Red Square Screenings. And knowing that there is a very large Eastern European community in South Florida, I wrote to them basically asking them if they had any titles to suggest for us, to let the filmmakers know about us.” The organization not only responded but they invited Emerman to Moscow for the screenings, where she made the contacts that led to the Eastern European films she will be exhibiting.
“It’s quite a range. We have a documentary, we have a film called ‘Tilt’ from Bulgaria, about some 20-somethings and their lives. We have ‘White Tiger,’ an Oscar submission from Russia, a war story which a lot of the films that I saw are. Then you have ‘Match,’ which brings sports into the picture, with a war story in there as well.”
Under duress, Emerman agreed to single out some of the festival films on which she is especially high. “You know I don’t like doing this, but I’d have to say ‘My Dad Baryshnikov,’ about a little boy who thinks his dad is (Mikhail) Baryshnikov. I just thought it was so sweet,” she says.
She also mentions “Lost Boy Home,” about the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan who fled their homeland during its brutal civil war and now return to search for their parents. Emerman calls it “another heart-tugger with a message” and adds that “we’re going to have one of the Lost Boys here.”
A documentary she particularly likes is “Comedy Warriors: Healing through Humor,” about soldiers maimed in war and how they rehab themselves with improvisational comedy. “They’re on the circuit now and they will all be here,” probably performing. “It really brings issues to people.”
She also mentions “As High as the Sky,” “another very sweet film about a quirky woman and her relationship with her niece,” and the closing-night film, “Chez Upshaw,” about a couple who run a failing bed and breakfast that they turn into a resort for assisted suicides. “You know what, it’s just fun, it’s uplifting and a fun night. And (its star) Illeana Douglas will be here.” Emerman calls it “sheer entertainment, a good wrap-up to the festival.”
A few of the festival films, like last night’s opener “Decoding Annie Parker,” “Renoir” and “Still Mine” have signed with distributors and will probably return to commercial theaters. But not many.
That is why Emerman touts the festival as an opportunity “to experience other people’s lives, their cultures, their ambitions, their desires. To meet many of the filmmakers behind them. And to experience cinema you might not have any other way of seeing.”
To purchase advance tickets, go to www.pbifilmfest.org
Tickets are also available at each theater’s box office.